On Trigger Warnings, Intellectual Curiosity, and Self Compassion


Trigger warnings in academia have become a hot topic. The University of Chicago recently released a controversial letter to the Class of 2020 stating that they did not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’…or the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The latter, in theory, makes sense – higher education is supposed to challenge you, to make you question your ideas and open your mind to a variety of perspectives, and the ways in which trigger warnings have been exploding in use lately can inhibit that. But for someone who navigates higher education with a specific set of mental health needs, finding a balance between triggers, intellectual curiosity, and self compassion can be a challenge.

On one hand, the traditional use of trigger warnings are a great tool for those in early stages of recovery from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. When a person who has experienced trauma gets triggered, symptoms of distress that result can range from physical (such as headaches, fatigue, and difficulty breathing) to emotional (like fear and dramatic mood swings, among others) to psychosocial (for example, difficulty connecting with others or an inability to manage stress). In these cases, a trigger warning can be crucial. It allows the person who has experienced trauma to prepare themselves for what they are going to experience. It gives them the agency to choose whether or not they feel capable at that moment to deal with something that could have serious consequences on their wellbeing. And more often than not, it allows for someone to come back to this potentially triggering content at a time and in a place in which they feel safe and ready to deal with it.

The other side of the argument makes some important points, too. It notes that trigger warnings seem to have been co-opted by those who think they should not have to experience information that they may disagree with or can be uncomfortable at all. Professors have reported students requesting trigger warnings for everything from famine and religious intolerance to spiders. By using trigger warnings to refer to things that can be uncomfortable, but not necessarily retraumatizing, their true meaning and utility is being put at risk. Yes, talking about topics like religious beliefs, race, and gender can be incredibly uncomfortable sometimes, but facing that level of discomfort and engaging with the topic can be rewarding and beneficial. This level of discomfort can be a catalyst to help us think more critically and can hopefully spark intellectual growth, and college is a place where growth and curiosity should be encouraged and explored.

So for people who have experienced trauma, what are some ways in which they can navigate these classroom experiences in a manner that is useful for them? There’s no cut and dry answer for that, since everyone experiences triggers in different ways, but here are a few tips that anyone could use:

  • Talk to your professors. If you see something on the syllabus and are concerned it might trigger you, ask about it. And if you feel comfortable, talk to that professor about what your needs are, whether it’s just additional time to complete a reading for class or the flexibility to step outside during a class session if need be.
  • Seek help on campus. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great resource for students who have experienced stress, anxiety, and trauma. The counseling staff can help you make a plan for how to deal with triggers in and out of the classroom, and are available for drop-ins Monday through Friday during normal business hours..
  • Practice grounding techniques. If you find yourself getting triggered in class, grounding can be a great tool to help minimize anxiety and other symptoms. Try breathing in and out slowly, focusing on the sound of your breathing, the chair you’re sitting in, the ground your feet are on, and other physical sensations to bring down your heart rate and relax your body. There are lots of ways to practice grounding in all sorts of situations, so find the one that works best for you!
  • Give yourself a break. Be gentle with yourself and know your limits. If you don’t feel ready to confront a trigger, you don’t have to. A little self compassion and care can go a long way.

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